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When Unrealistic Expectations Become Resentments

How to keep your expectations of others in check so you aren't disappointed.

Key points

  • The problem with expectations is when people expect something to happen without any reason or evidence for it.
  • Needing life always to turn out how one wants it to is guaranteed to disappoint one.
  • Without verbalizing expectations about the give-and-take in a relationship, people construct stories.
  • Unspoken expectations are usually guaranteed not to be fulfilled.
Source: amberkipp/Pexels
Source: amberkipp/Pexels

"Expectation feeds frustration. It is an unhealthy attachment to people, things, and outcomes we wish we could control but don't." — Dr. Steve Maraboli

We believe that expecting something to happen will automatically cause it to happen. We rest our hopes and dreams on the fulfillment of these firmly-held expectations. And in reality, there is nothing wrong with this—especially when we have good reason to believe that fulfilling our expectations will result in our happiness. Many of us learn from past experiences that doing certain things will make us happy. For instance, I know from experience that making my morning latte usually brings me happiness and a boost of energy, so it's reasonable for me to expect this experience every morning when I wake up.

The problem with expectations shows up when we expect something to happen without any good reason or evidence for it. If I believe that my expectations alone will bring me what I desire, I create an unreasonable expectation that sets me up for disappointment. For example, I can't make a latte by just thinking it into existence; I have to take the steps to create it. I must put the espresso, water, and milk in the machine and push the button. Expecting my latte to show up when I wake up will only let me down.

That example is easy to understand, but the concept gets confusing when dealing with people. Most of us can know that expecting a latte to materialize from our thoughts the minute we wake up is unrealistic. Yet many of us have, at some point, believed that expecting others to behave how we want them to will make it happen.

For example, you may expect your partner to be the one to make your latte in the morning, which is pleasing and friendly if your partner is on board to do it. But what happens if your partner has no interest in living up to that expectation? You might feel shocked, upset, and resentful. In cases like these, expectations become premeditated resentments.

It should be easy to think of times from your own life when you've felt resentful toward someone who didn't live up to your expectations. I know it is for me. Needing life always to turn out how you want it to is guaranteed to disappoint you because life doesn't work this way. Your parents, spouse, and children won't always meet your expectations, and that's OK if you let it be. Instead of allowing your expectations to lead to disappointment and resentment, it better serves you to keep your ideas about how things should be in check.

Think about it: Why don't we get upset when a latte doesn't make itself, but we get upset if our spouse doesn't make it for us? Where do we get the idea that expecting others to behave how we want them to will make them behave that way? What makes us angry at other people when they don't meet our expectations?

Without verbalizing expectations about the give-and-take in a relationship, people construct stories in their heads, coming up with what they believe to be legitimate expectations of each other. In this way, people in a relationship have a deal, even when they don't discuss the details of it. It's hard for people to live up to our expectations when they don't know what they are. However, we still feel wronged when our needs aren't met.

For example, I often hear about how my clients felt obligated to listen to their friends' and families' problems for years, even when they didn't want to, because they expected they'd get the same in return. When that doesn't happen, they feel upset and wronged. I've felt the same way many times. It's easy to believe that if you're there for people, they should be there for you, too.

However, unspoken expectations are usually guaranteed not to be fulfilled.

Speaking openly about your expectations for others may improve your chances of fulfillment. And by learning not to expect people to know what you need from them, you'll be much clearer when communicating your needs. Instead of hoping others will read your body language, tell them why you're upset or disappointed.

At the same time, thinking that clearly communicating your expectations will get people to behave as you want them to might also leave you feeling let down. My biggest challenge regarding expectations is questioning what to do when my children need to follow the rules I've designed to help keep them safe, healthy, and respectful. I know that yelling and getting angry isn't the answer, so I always consider other ways to address my expectations of them.

If we expect other people to act in ways inconsistent with their interests, they'll probably resist those expectations, leaving us resentful. Furthermore, they'll probably end up resenting us, too. Think about it: How do you feel when people expect you to do things that don't align with your goals and values?

When thinking about your expectations of others, consider whether you've fully communicated them. If you have, make sure those expectations meet the interests of your partner, friend, or family member. When you let go of the expectation that everyone needs to fall in line with what you want so that you can feel good, you get to experience contentment even when things don't turn out the way you'd hoped.

More from Ilene Strauss Cohen Ph.D.
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